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Isaiah 58:1-12 - Homilies By E. Johnson

True and spurious fasting.

Loudly, with all the strength of throat and as with trumpet-voice, the prophet is to cry and denounce the rebellion and the sins of the people.

I. THEIR FORMALITY AND HYPOCRISY , They consult Jehovah daily; they apply to the prophet or the oracle; they offer prayer. They profess to desire to know God's ways, his commands, and his dealings with his people. Just as if they were a holy people, and were not really far in heart from God, they demand of him "judgments of righteousness;" i.e. manifestations of his pleasure as the God of the covenant, his approach as the God of justice. They adhered to the forms of religion, but the heart was not in them. Relying on those forms, they were surprised the Divine favour was not vouchsafed to them. "A hypocrite has no true and real delight in the service of God or in his truth; but, at the same time, there may be a great deal of professed interest in the ways of God. A great deal of busy and bustling solicitude about the order of religious services, the external organization of the Church, the ranks of a clergy, the claims of a liturgy. There may be a great deal of pleasure in theological discussion, in the metaphysics of theology, in the defence of what is deemed orthodoxy. There may be much pleasure in the music of devotion, in the pleasant voice of a preacher, in the triumphs of party, the advancement of our sect. But true religion is delight in religion itself—in the service of God as such, and because it is holy. It is pleasure, not even in the triumph of Christianity as a mere party measure, but in God as he is, his holy service and truth" (Barnes).

II. SPURIOUS FASTING . Formal fasting appears to have increased from the time of the Captivity. Another phrase for it was "humbling the soul" (Le 16:29, 31; 23:27, 32; Numbers 29:7 ; Numbers 30:13 ). In connection with this outward observance, they keenly pursue business ends, exacting the full tale of tasks. "Like Shylock, they demand the pound of flesh, at the same time that they may be most precise, punctual, and bigoted in the discharge of the duties of religion. If we desire to keep a fast acceptable to God, it should be such as shall make us kind, mild, benignant; such as shall take effect in the unbinding heavy burdens from the poor, and relaxing the rigidness of the claims we have on others." Moreover, the fasting is connected with strife and contention; and so their prayers cannot rise to the seat of Jehovah ( Isaiah 57:15 ). "Thou hast covered thyself with clouds, so that prayer may not pass through" ( Lamentations 3:44 ).

"Their words fly up, their thoughts remain below;

Words without thoughts never to heaven go."

The inclination of the head, the sackcloth and the ashes,—these make not the fast in the eyes of Jehovah. "It is not a mournful expression, a solemn dress, or a thin table that God so much regards. It is the heart, and not the stomach, that he would have empty; and, therefore, if a man carries a luxurious soul in a pining body, or the aspiring mind of a Lucifer on the hanging head of a bulrush, he fasts only to upbraid his Maker, and to disgrace his religion, and to heighten his final reckoning, till he becomes ten times more the son of perdition than those who own their inward love of sin by the open undissembled enmities of a suitable behaviour. Let a man not count himself to have fasted to any purpose, if by it he has not got ground of his corruption, in some measure supplanted his sin, and estranged his affections from the beloved embraces of sinful objects" (South).

III. THE TRUE FASTING . There was elaborate and merciful legislation for the protection of Hebrew slaves ( Exodus 21:2 ; Deuteronomy 15:12 ; Le 25:39); yet it appears to have become a dead letter, which called for severest castigation ( Jeremiah 34:8 , etc.). "To loose the bands of wickedness," to release those borne down by exactions contrary to the Law, to "untie the thongs of the yoke" (to free those detained beyond the legal time), to raise up the "crushed" (in the spirit of him who cherishes the crushed reed, Isaiah 42:3 ; Cheyne), this was the chosen fast of Jehovah. It was "to break bread to the hungry, and to bring miserable outcasts to their home" (cf. Ezekiel 18:7 , Ezekiel 18:16 ). It was "to clothe the naked, and not to hide one's-self from one's own flesh." It is known that from time to time, both in the Jewish and the Christian Churches, alms-giving has been exalted into a religion and a morality, instead of remaining the expression and fruit of a pure heart. None the less it may be true that at certain times the duty may stand in the forefront of piety, and the neglect of it leave the reproach of "worse than the infidel" on the conscience. Righteousness is not coincident with almsgiving; but almsgiving, like any other external act, may be perverted into a formalism (as we see from Matthew 6:14 ). Charity must begin at home. The outcasts ( Joel 3:2-8 ; Nehemiah 5:8 ), and those of the same flesh ( Nehemiah 5:5 ), are especially those of one's own house and country. "The condition of a truly religions fast is that it be attended with alms and works of charity. Amongst our other emptinesses, the evacuation of the purse is proper to this solemnity, and he that inflicts a thorough penance upon this, stops the fountain of luxury and the opportunities of extravagance. Charity is the grand seasoning of every Christian duty; it gives it a gloss in the sight of God, and a value in the sight of man; and he fasts properly whose fast is the poor man's feast, whose abstinence is another's abundance. God here roundly tells his people what is truly a fast and what is no fast in his esteem—not to abstain from bread , but to deal it to the hungry; "this is properly to fast. Not to wrap ourselves in sackcloth, but to cover and clothe our naked brother; this is to be humbled. Alms have so much the pre-eminence over prayer, that one is a begging of God, the other a lending to him" (South).

IV. PROMISES TO THE OBEDIENT . "Thy light shall break forth as the morning" (cf. Job 11:17 ). Like the spreading welcome light of" rosy-fingered dawn," prosperity will come to gladden their hearts. "Thy new flesh shall quickly shoot forth." Old wounds shall be healed, and the vital forces, which have been checked, shall resume their activity. "Thy righteousness shall go before thee." Personal rectitude ( Isaiah 1:27 ; Isaiah 33:5 , Isaiah 33:6 ) shall be as a leader, conducting them in the paths of prosperity and peace; and in the rear of the host shall be Jehovah's glory ( Isaiah 52:12 ). Here, then, is joy , vigour , confidence , all connected with rightness; this rightness found, where alone it can be found, in mind and heart conformed to the Divine will. Prayer will be heard and answered (contrast Isaiah 58:2 , Isaiah 58:4 ). A God distant and exiled will give place to one so near that a cry will bring his presence and his help. As the last note of despair is, "Where is our God?" the highest point of faith is reached by those who hear him say, "Here I am!" But God would ever be near, were it not for the "thick cloud" of sin between the heart and him. Only let the oppression and the contumely and the defilement of the tongue, reflected in the defilement of the mind, cease, and the better springs of the inner life will rise. When they rise, there will be blessing around one, and other lives will be gladdened; and, when this shall be, then "thy thick darkness shall be as noon;" life shall be a progress under Divine direction; there shall be refreshment, comfort, exhilaration, and restoration of the ruins of the past.—J.

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